You might say Adam Haslett has returned to the scene of the crime.
In “Notes to My Biographer,” the opening story of his 2002 debut collection “You Are Not a Stranger Here,” Haslett drew readers into the winged mania of bipolar disorder as experienced by a father and son as if it were his natural habitat.
Other stories in the book — a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award — touched confidently on the endless feedback loops of psychiatric disorder as well. So it came as a surprise when Haslett’s first novel, “Union Atlantic,” turned its gaze so decisively outward.
“Union Atlantic” took a sweeping look at high-finance shenanigans, dogged government investigations, travestied small-town traditions, and fraying family ties. To be sure, it featured a disturbed New England schoolteacher who believed her dogs spoke to her in the voices of Cotton Mather and Malcolm X. But its larger focus was on seismic shifts in 21st-century fiscal ethics and their corrosive effect on communities riven by class resentments.
With “Imagine Me Gone,” Haslett is back to working on a smaller canvas, but to no less powerful effect. It’s a study of destructive family dynamics akin to Christina Stead’s “The Man Who Loved Children” or Paul Theroux’s “The Mosquito Coast.” Family here is a trap as filled with love and concern as it is with exasperation and dread.
Moving with penetrating wit between the points of view of a father, mother, daughter, and two sons, the novel traces how the vein of mental illness running through this family affects every member. (In Poets & Writers this month, Haslett, who was born in Kingston and raised in Wellesley and England, acknowledges that the family history recounted in “Imagine Me Gone” is drawn from his own: “This is not ‘Google mental illness and make it up.’ Mental illness is in my family, and the beasts that I write about are not abstractions to me.”)
After a prologue that hints a little heavily at where the story is heading, Haslett turns the narrative over to Margaret, an American from Massachusetts who, in 1963, meets her future husband John in London. They’re powerfully drawn to each other but can’t accurately interpret each other, perhaps because of their different nationalities.
At least that’s how Margaret explains the elusive elements in John: “He grew up in the old world of character as manners and form, emotion having nothing to do with it, marriage being one of the forms. Which isn’t to say he doesn’t love me. He’s just British about it.”
When John suffers a mental collapse, however, it grows clear that something other than cultural difference is at work. The breakdown isn’t his first, she learns, and she has to decide whether to go through with their planned marriage. She loves him, so she does. Over the next 40 years, as they move back and forth between England and Massachusetts, the consequences of her decision play out.
They have three children. Michael, the eldest, is the kind of kid who wields his precocious vocabulary against the grown-ups around him like a weapon (“What are you cogitating about?”). His fantastically lurid account of the family’s move from the United States to England, in which the ship goes off course to Africa and his younger brother, Alec, is ostensibly kidnapped by a child prostitution ring, suggests he may have inherited his father’s mental instability.
After a business failure in London, John moves the family back to Massachusetts where he suffers more career disasters and goes into a full downward spiral, culminating in his suicide. His shocked wife and three children cope in different ways.
Alec, a political journalist, seeks out urgent sexual connection: “I loved men. Obviously. But it wasn’t just sex.” The key thing for him is to know a man is paying attention to him: “[W]hat more was there to want than that?”
Daughter Celia’s strategy is to flee to faraway San Francisco and live on guarded terms with a man she hopes will “deliver me from my family, rather than imitate it.”
Margaret’s approach is to sweat the small stuff while avoiding larger issues. She tries to help Michael with his problems by giving him money she can ill afford. But Michael is an abyss of neediness. A call from him guarantees hours-long sessions on the phone. Requests from him for advice are really demands that someone rubber-stamp all the bad moves he makes in his love life and career.
A perennial graduate student and penniless music writer, Michael is on a heavy-duty regimen of psychoactive drugs that calm his anxiety for a while, but can’t make him functional on a long-term basis. Alec, Celia, and Margaret all have their own ideas of what might help him out. Haslett, as he turns the narrative over to first one and then the other, is uncanny in nailing how their differences in personality and temperament guide their respective actions.
This sounds like grim stuff, but the book isn’t entirely a downer. Haslett’s sharp take on how minor family foibles become conflated with major family dysfunction introduces some unexpected comedy into the proceedings. One recurring “gag”: Poor Margaret can’t make a single move without her children skeptically ganging up on her. Another compelling strand is Michael’s feverish call for “resistance to patriarchy” and his determination, in his checkered academic career, to focus on African-Americans’ sufferings under slavery, even though few African-American studies departments seem eager to welcome a disturbed white 30-something male into their midst.
Haslett expertly evokes family behavioral patterns that simply repeat themselves, taxing everyone’s patience, before precipitating into panic-inducing crises. (“Where did it end?” Celia asks of Michael’s plight. “What level of need couldn’t he surpass?”)
With its fugue of voices, each contributing a vital slant to the action, “Imagine Me Gone” offers rigorous formal pleasures. Yet while flirting with narrative artifice, Haslett stays keenly aware that in this family there is no explanation “sufficient to account for the events . . . [L]ives weren’t works of art.”
In acknowledging that, “Imagine Me Gone” respects the mystery of how things happen the way they happen, while brilliantly conjuring the tide-like pull with which dreaded possibilities become harsh inevitability.
IMAGINE ME GONE
By Adam Haslett
Little, Brown, 356 pp., $26
Novelist Michael Upchurch (“Passive Intruder”) is the former Seattle Times book critic.